In Luigi Pirandello’s beautiful short story, “War”, two men argue almost ridiculously about whether it is worse for one to lose one’s only son in a war or to have two sons and lose only one. At the end of the story, a woman listening to the argument suddenly asks a question of the man who has only one son off at the front:
“Then…is your son really dead?”
Everybody stared at her. The old man, too, turned to look at her, fixing his great, bulging horribly watery light grey eyes, deep in her fact. For some time he tried to answer, but words failed him. He looked at her, almost as if only then–at that silly, incongruous question–he had suddenly realized at last that his son was really dead–gone for ever–forever. His face contracted, became horribly distorted, then he snatched in haste a handkerchief from his pocket and, to the amazement of everyone, broke into harrowing, heart-rending, uncontrollable sobs.
Moral: when reality is painful, illusion may be preferable, and she who dispels the illusion is cruel.
In “War” this theme plays out tragically. In Six Characters in Search of an Author, it plays out as wit. That is what makes it such an extraordinary work; it is also what makes it extremely difficult to stage for a modern American audience.
Much of the drama of the piece concerns Pirandello’s ideas of reality. That reality is malleable features in many, many American works after the 1960s–or, at least, it seems to. But if one strips the lacquer, one more likely finds that reality is not malleable but individual (Americans love their myths of individualism) and within individuals reality tends to be fixed.
In “War,” a careless non sequitur completely ruins the old man’s illusion that war is wonderful and noble and just. But hearing such a discussion in modern America, the old man with the watery light grey eyes would just say, “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” and then immediately resume his fatuous discussion. Implied is that obnoxious yet typically American subtext that “my reality is as good as your reality because all my teachers and friends say so, and besides I read it somewhere that it’s all arbitrary anyway,” etc., etc.
This is not Pirandello’s universe. Pirandello’s universe freely mixes sanity and madness, fact and fiction, actuality and illusion, but the author would never suggest that there is no difference between the poles; he would only say that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference. And, he would also stress that even when people know the difference they may well prefer madness, prefer fiction, prefer illusion. But such illusion must be shared, just as reality must be, or it quickly disintegrates.
I think director Daniel Tarker is up against the ropes with this difficulty in the Seattle Theatre Works production. It’s been adapted, yes, and modernized, yes. But it has not been thoroughly rethought, and I think Pirandello’s work needs to be completely re-examined if it is to fly for a contemporary American audience.
There’s a scene in the fabulous movie David Holzman’s Diary in which David Holzman is trying to film everything in his life “truthfully” and turns his camera onto his unwilling friend.
You don’t understand the basic principle. As soon as you start filming something that happens in front of the camera, it’s not reality anymore. It becomes part of something else. It becomes a movie. And you’ve stopped living somehow…your whole life stops being your life and becomes a work of art. And a very bad work of art.
Presented as a cinema verité documentary to the audiences at the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival, the film’s end credits revealed it to be total fiction–the first “mockumentary” in American cinema. The Audience naturally booed. But that only proved the film’s point: people will accept as truth whatever they think is truth. Così è, se vi pare.
That marvelous Italian phrase is the title of an earlier play by Luigi Pirandello. It’s usually translated as Right You Are! (If You Think So), though it’s more literally So It Is! (If It Pleases You). The Italian is subtle and ironic: it’s not a statement about thinking the truth, but of feeling it. Merely feeling the truth is substituted for knowing it, but there is still an acknowledged difference.
Americans, however, largely lack that distinction in our culture. Pirandello’s ironic phrase summarizes the essence of contemporary American life, moral, political, social, and cultural. Turn on Fox News or scroll through Twitter and this becomes obvious. Facts themselves have grown irrelevant and truth–well, truth, like reality, exists merely to be remade at convenience whenever one is too smug to admit an actual moral or intellectual failing. Who needs truth when you have truthiness? ‘Cuz that’s just, like, your opinion, man.
Contemporary America seems obsessed with individualism and self-identification. Yet Six Characters in Search of an Author lays siege to the very notion of an individual self. It presents at first a group of actors, then a group of characters. But of course, actors are playing characters who are actors just as surely as the characters are actors playing characters. Characters may take on lives of their own but they can only live one life. They can never be who they are not. For there are no such things as self-actualization, self-expression, or indeed self. Actors, of course, in the play can pretend to play characters they are not, and assume many different roles and seem to become different people while still holding the illusion that they are their “selves.” But these selves, too, are written by an author, and as characters who are playing actors they can no more have a self than the characters who are actors playing characters–they are in the same straits as David Holzman. Even if one is on stage playing oneself, with one’s own name, one is not oneself: one is a character. This reality, too, is every bit as immutable as the Stepdaughter’s, or the Father’s. Even beyond the stage itself, the play reminds its audience that they are not real, either. Like the Manager, audiences believe themselves to have “selves” yet their identities change if not daily then weekly, yearly: identity is really only a long string of shifting states depending on time, whim, situation.
In a culture that lacks this tradition of philosophical argument in its theater, among audiences who go to the theater to see their friends enact endless kitchen sink dramas of bourgeois life and the occasional “weird” piece that presents instead of ossified passions in a tired old form a series of ossified perversions in a tired old form–where exactly is the space for these themes so dear to Pirandello?
Courageously, Mr. Tarker’s adaptation takes a swing anyway. He simplifies the piece by localizing it. References to the immediate Seattle theater world abound. Local playwrights are called by name as are local theaters. Some of the localization, however, changes a layer of the play’s self-reflexivity. Instead of the actors rehearsing a Pirandello play–which would never be put on in Seattle–they are rehearsing for a short theater festival, the very same late night festival that plays after Six Characters in Search of an Author. The parts for the “acting troupe” roles are expanded to include pop culture digressions into The Twilight Zone and Punk’d (which obviously all rely upon some level of reality/illusion dialectic).
I am neutral on this aspect of the production. I can’t say it illuminated the text for me, nor did it make the work easier to approach, nor did it magically make the play “timely” and “relevant.” I do wish he hadn’t included a glib reference to one of the playwrights of the festival thinking that he’s a 21st Century Pirandello, because there is no sense in the rest of the piece that this group of actors or the unseen playwrights whose work they rehearse have even the faintest clue who Pirandello is. It’s all too easy at moments of glibness like this to get the sense that people are patting themselves on the back, the sort of smugness being ridiculed in Margaret Rowe’s Cleveland review of the original New York production:
Our hats are off to you
You’re such a clever fellow
Satirical and new
The Highbrows dote on you
And the morons think they do
One point of Mr. Tarker’s adaptation that does remain problematic for me is the decision to introduce the Six Characters from back stage. This is in Pirandello’s directions, at least the 1921 version of the play. The author’s choice here is to separate the Characters’ reality by having them seem to be strangely illuminated. I’m not sure this works anymore. It isn’t a knock against Steve Cooper’s subtle lighting design, but I think for a contemporary audience it may not be enough. Amy LaZerte’s costumes are excellent, a fact which I only really noticed the second time I saw the play, and they help to separate the Characters as something completely out of time, but even that does not strike me as enough. The audiences’ response both times I attended struck me as fairly muted, if not jaded, when the Characters appeared.
Mr. Tarker’s own adaptation mentions, in one of its Acting Troupe digressions, the idea of a multiverse, the possibility that the Characters pulled themselves through a warp in space-time. I rather wish he’d have chosen to illustrate that instead of deferring to tradition. It would have made more explicit the birth of the Characters as characters who exist only on a stage, with actors, and would foreshadow the similar appearance of Madame Pace later in the play. Instead, it’s all quite mundane, and the Characters appear merely as Capitol Hill crazies pleading their case as sane.
Too, there is an unevenness of tone in the production. Is it a comedy? Is it tragic? Is it somewhere between? The answer is “yes.” But this yes is a bit muddled on the evening. Some of this is because the play itself is a struggle between the inherently suspended nature of the drama the Six Characters must live eternally; for them there can be no ending, happy or otherwise. For the Acting Troupe, there can be no beginning. They can no more become the “author” for the Six Characters than the Six Characters can escape their eternal torture.
Pirandello viewed this futility as comic. I’m not sure Mr. Tarker does. I’m not even sure that I do myself. I am sure, however, that this struggle does not come across on the evenings I saw it as comic. The Actors in the Acting Troupe come off as far too self-absorbed and self-important. The character of Randall Brammer in particular is so insistent that he understands the incomprehensible–it’s just batshit craziness, dude–that he comes off like one of the High Five’n White Guys on a tirade, but without enough irony to make the action seem ridiculous. As the Actors are too certain of their “selves” when the very idea of a self is being destroyed before their eyes, the comic incongruity flags. When I said earlier that the piece plays out as wit, I didn’t say that it plays out as comedy. Wit is not necessarily funny. And it is wit that is largely missing from the piece.
I am giving this much space to Mr. Tarker’s production because I am certain he has done his work and that the play is extremely important and meaningful to him, and because I think it shows extraordinary courage to try to get Seattle audiences to do anything like thinking in a theater. Given the zeitgeist of Seattle’s theater right now, I’m not surprised that Mr. Tarker’s production has some predictable weaknesses. On the contrary: I’m surprised that the production comes off at all, and even more that it comes off so well.
Some of this I can attribute to his excellent cast, especially two exceptional performances by Peter Cook and Sarah Milici as the Father and the Stepdaughter, and a rather good one by Brent Griffith as the Manager/Director. Mr. Cook’s performance shows his gift for sublimating violence beneath a civilized front and captures the Father as perfectly as Ted d’Arms did in his outstanding performance of the play long ago. Sarah Milici, too, displays her remarkable gift for knowing exactly what play she is in, and imbues her role with a sense that she knows she is a character and can shift back and forth effortlessly between being a “self” and a “type.” Brent Griffith somehow manages to bridge the levels of chaos onstage with his portrayal of The Manager (also named Brent Griffith). He serves as an excellent anchor for both the Acting Troupe and the Characters.
Most of the production’s strength, however, comes from Mr. Tarker’s dedication to actually reading the play. It’s clear he’s thought deeply about the piece. His staging is crystal clear. Also, his directing is filled with excellent touches. Even when the Actors are at their most passive (standing in for the audience) they are deeply attentive and radiate genuine emotions in through reactions to the Characters’ drama that subtly mimic and persuade the audience’s own (with her marvelous face Skye Stephenson is particularly good at this). Mr. Tarker’s handling of the action at the play’s denouement, too, is about 95% fantastic, which is good enough for science and better for art, and makes me wish that he had chosen to make the characters appear in a manner as effectively as they disappear.
The production offers many pathways into the play’s drama. It appears almost designed to make people feel at ease, practically whispering, “Hey, it’s a classic play but it’s okay; we promise we won’t hurt you.” Pirandello without tears. That is certainly its appeal for the people who have told me that they liked it. They can go for in-jokes. They can go for local references. They can go because their friends are on stage as their “selves.” And of course the highbrows can always pat themselves on the back for knowing that Pirandello is not an oil of citronella.
Getting a decent production of Pirandello on the boards at all is probably a massive victory, and I am probably underestimating its importance because I am jaded. I think Mr. Tarker could go even further with the piece than he does, but that’s because my esteem for him is as high as my esteem for the play itself. He always assembles excellent casts. He always insists on meaning. He is unafraid to challenge an audience to listen up. If anyone currently working in Seattle could give us via Pirandello a definitive essay on the difference between social and artistic reality, he would be my choice. This version remains unresolved, but then so is our current reality as Americans, Seattleites and theater audiences for whom philosophical drama is as rare as a hypernova.